While the war in Ukraine has upended global geopolitics and ratcheted up tensions between Russia and the West, the impact has been especially profound across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where many inhabitants have themselves been the victims of Moscow’s aggression in the past.
In Kazakhstan, which shares the world’s longest land border with Putin’s rogue state and was the last of the former Soviet republics to achieve independence, the past two years have not only seen the disruption of traditional political and economic ties but accelerated a process of uncoupling from Russian language and culture.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “the young generation started to be more aware and be more awake and passionate about [Kazakh] culture itself,” says 26-year-old filmmaker Aisultan Seitov, whose feature debut, “Qas” (Hunger), about the brutal Kazakh famine of the 1930s, won best director honors in the Asian New Talent section of this year’s Shanghai Film Festival.
Now, he adds, “it’s a different world,” as Kazakhstan is increasingly “unlinked — unchained — from Russian media, from Russian music, from a lot of Russian content.”
As in its neighboring Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan’s film industry during the Soviet era was tightly controlled by Moscow, which set quotas for the number of films produced in each republic and underwrote the financing, promotion and distribution of movies. During the Perestroika era in the 1980s, as the shackles of Soviet might were slowly loosening, the Kazakh New Wave emerged, with filmmakers like Rashid Nugmanov — whose stirring debut “The Needle” was the movement’s catalyst — paving the way for a post-Soviet, independent Kazakh cinema to emerge.
The largest of the former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to score a nomination for what was formerly known as the foreign-language Oscar with Sergi Bodrov’s “Mongol” (2007), while also twice appearing on the shortlist, with Ermek Tursunov’s “Kelin” (2009) and Sergey Dvortsevoy’s “Ayka” (2018), which competed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Recent years have seen a bumper crop of titles from emerging Kazakh filmmakers making waves on the festival circuit, including Askar Uzabayev’s domestic violence drama “Happiness,” which won the Audience Award in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama sidebar in 2022, and Askhat Kuchinchirekov’s debut film “Bauryna Salu” (Adoption), which was selected to compete in the New Directors strand of the San Sebastian Film Festival. Prolific director Adilkhan Yerzhanov, meanwhile, whose filmography includes the Cannes Un Certain Regard premiere “The Gentle Indifference of the World” (2018) and last year’s Rotterdam-Berlin black comedy “Assault,” has been a regular guest of top-shelf festivals around the world.
Beyond the festival plaudits, the domestic market is also showing signs of life. “Cinema is growing. It is on the rise in Kazakhstan,” says Kuchinchirekov, whose debut (pictured, top) was awarded Best Youth Film at this year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards. “There are more and more of these commercial films that people are investing in, and they’re starting to return on their investments.”
Veteran producer Anna Katchko, who has been working in Kazakhstan since 2008 and served as an independent adviser on a new film law that was drafted in 2019, says there’s “huge potential” in a local industry that has considerable sums of private equity to tap into and a growing interest in opening its arms to the world.
“Kazakhstan is working directly with Europe, working directly with America,” says Katchko, whose credits include Uzabayev’s “Happiness,” Kuchinchirekov’s “Bauryna Salu” and Emir Baigazin’s Berlin competition selection “Harmony Lessons.” “There are co-productions being made, and there’s much more interest [from abroad].”
That sense of optimism was partly the driving force behind 2019 legislation that included provisions for a 30% cash rebate, which would have helped to put the sprawling Central Asian nation on the map for international film production. However, with the coronavirus pandemic following right on its heels — and the country only recently emerging from the political tumult that followed the 2019 departure of long-time strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev — the rebate has yet to take effect.
The war in Ukraine, however, has had an unexpected upside for the local film industry. After Hollywood studios severed ties with Russian distributors, which traditionally brokered deals for the former Soviet republics, Kazakh companies have stepped in to fill the gap, inking direct deals with the U.S. The domestic share of box office is also rising, continuing a decade-long trend of Kazakh-language commercial hits aimed at local audiences.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, the government introduced legislation to promote the use of the Kazakh language over Russian, still widely spoken in the country of 20 million, in state television and radio.
The emergence of a robust domestic market couldn’t come at a better time for the local industry, as Russia grows increasingly closed off from the world. “[Before the war], very successful Kazakh directors who were doing a lot of box office here, it was a logical next step to go work in Russia, because it’s a bigger market [and] the same language for many. And this changed,” says Katchko. “But it was already developing at a good pace. There’s a lot happening, and it’s a whole new generation.”
Documentary filmmaker Katerina Suvorova sought to capture that generation’s strength and unity with her sophomore effort, “Streets Loud With Echoes,” a rousing film that follows the youth-powered civil movement sparked by the shocking murder of an Olympic champion figure skater in 2018.
“I was observing the moment through the eyes of my generation,” says Suvorova, whose debut, “Sea Tomorrow,” played at the Locarno Film Festival before being acquired by Netflix. “It’s representing the different moods and tones of my generation here in Kazakhstan, and perhaps also in Central Asia, traumatized by the Soviet Union’s vertical power of government.”
The collective soul-searching sparked by that movement has galvanized a generation of Kazakhs ready for their voices to be heard, Suvorova adds. “How do we see ourselves now in relationship to our country? What do we want to say?”